I understand the spirit of baptism, but what is the importance of the physical act of baptism?
Spiritual baptism is a personal thing, but the physical act is social and public. Baptism, therefore, is both Evangelical and Sacramental; that is, it both calls for salvation and gives witness to it. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is an act of God performed in the church and, thus, the active agent in a sacrament is God. A sacrament has three defining characteristics: First, it is ordered by Christ in the Scriptures; secondly, it has a physical sign attached to it and; third, a promise of God’s grace comes with it. John Wesley taught that baptism is a good gift from God to the church, a significant part of God’s plan for brining people to salvation. God can bring people to salvation without their having received it and simply having been baptized is no guarantee of anyone’s salvation.
Yet, at the same time baptism is a part of the lifelong process by which God works in our lives. The grace that comes to us in baptism must be responded to and accepted in repentance and faith, continually. While one is only initiated (baptized) into the church once, that one is nourished the rest of his or her life through the church (signified by the sacrament of Communion or the Lord’s Supper).
There are several New Testament metaphors which paint an intricate picture of the point and purpose of baptism; this experience, this baptism, concerns both the womb and the tomb. As we have established, baptism is “incorporation into the church”. When it comes to baptism, the apostle Paul is very egalitarian in his understanding:
1 Corinthians 12:13 – “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”(NRSV)
Galatians 3:27-28 – “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV)
Regardless of age, nationality, color, culture, or gender baptism is the sign-act of entrance into the Body of Christ (“baptized into one body”) where true social equality is the norm. The Corinthian text also supports another metaphor at which we shall look, and that of “Reception of the Holy Spirit” for “Holy Living.”
Matthew 3:16 – “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (NRSV)
1 Corinthians 6:11 – “…But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (NRSV)
Acts 19:5-6 – “…On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (NRSV)
Acts 2:38 – “Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NRSV)
The gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit may become visible spontaneously during baptism or gradually over a period of time after baptism, but the baptized can rest in assurance that with faith in Christ comes the love of God through the Holy Spirit. The Acts 2 text brings us to another metaphor of baptism, “Forgiveness of Sin.”
Acts 22:16 – “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.” (NRSV)
1 Peter 3:21 – “And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (NRSV)
Hebrews 10:22 – “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (NRSV)
The outer washing signifies an inward cleansing, and the dogma of the Nicene Creed affirms “one baptism for the remission of sins.” This washing of the inward parts carries us to the understanding of the “New Birth” or “New Life.”
John 3:5-7 – “Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’” (NRSV)
Titus 3:5 – “he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (NRSV)
There is regeneration (or new birth) and continued renewal of the believer in baptism. All of these metaphors, I think, are linked and over-lapped (as we have seen by the Scriptures texts) and a part of yet another, and perhaps most important: “Union with Christ.”
Romans 6:3-5 – “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (NRSV)
Colossians 2:12 – “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (NRSV)
The death and resurrection of Jesus brings the possibility of our resurrection in him when we conform to his death through baptism. We are buried with him and then we die his death, and resurrect in our new birth; sharing in his resurrection.
The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. We may baptize by any mode of Christian means – sprinkling, pouring, and immersion, etc. (smothered, covered, and chunked). Baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace has already accomplished and is here and now an act of God’s grace as it looks forward into the future to what God’s grace will accomplish. Persons of any age are suitable candidates for baptism because Christ’s body, the church, is a great family that includes persons of all ages. Baptism is not administered to any person more than once, for while our baptism vows are less than reliable, God’s promise to us in the sacrament is steadfast. [From the UMBOW]
And perhaps the most beautiful picture of the Sacrament of Baptism is in the many expressions of it seen throughout the Scriptures in God’s acts with His people. I think it is captured best in the Baptismal Covenant II liturgy: Prayer of Blessing in the United Methodist Book of Worship:
Eternal Father, your mighty acts of salvation have been made known through water – from the moving of your Spirit upon the waters of creation, to the deliverance of your people through the flood and through the Red Sea. In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb, baptized by John, and anointed by your Spirit. [And] He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection…